BOZEMAN — Hundreds of Montanans who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments have been asked to pay back the Montana Department of Labor and Industry — some receiving bills for over $10,000 — because of a federal change to how a person is deemed eligible for the money.
Roughly 21,000 Montanans received at least one payment between March and November from the PUA program, a program created by the CARES Act to distribute unemployment funds to people not eligible for regular unemployment, like gig workers or people who are self-employed. As of Tuesday, the state labor department had identified 8,802 issues on accounts that will require repayment, according to department spokesperson Lauren Lewis.
Lewis said in an email to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that some accounts may have multiple issues, so the 8,802 issues don’t necessarily mean that 8,802 people are being asked to pay back partial or full payments.
At least 816 people have received full denial and have been asked to pay back benefits in full.
When the PUA program was first put in place in April, it directed states to allow people asking for payments to “self-certify” that they met the requirements, Lewis said in an email. Later, the U.S. Department of Labor changed that rule, telling states to adjust pay where appropriate and add “additional integrity” to protect PUA systems from fraud.
“These adjustments were implemented after the federal government identified PUA was an easy target for fraud,” Lewis said. “Montana’s unemployment system is simply following all requirements from the U.S. Department of Labor while administering this program, and working diligently to make sure Montanans understand the complex federal programs and are receiving benefits, if eligible.”
Those changes are when the hiccups in the system happened for many people, like Michael Ditton.
Ditton owns his own business doing paralegal work in Bozeman, helping people sort out legal issues that arise from things like work visas and tax returns. His PUA application was approved in late April, and up until the end of October, he’d been receiving regular payments.
“And then on Oct. 22, they declared myself ineligible, issued a letter demanding repayment of an overpayment of $13,056,” Ditton said.
Ditton said he was denied because he wasn’t able to prove he was “part of the labor force.”
“I appealed that,” he said. “No response to my appeal yet.”
Lewis said the state labor department treats all unemployment claims as confidential, and doesn’t comment on or confirm information about specific claims, like the reasons a person was declined.
Ditton’s appeal is one of the 1,258 appeals the state labor department now has open. The amount of time an appeal takes to go through the system depends on how complicated the issues are and how much additional information the department needs, Lewis said.
Since the federal government authorized the PUA program in April, the department has received 7,866 appeals and requests for reconsideration —3,045 have been accepted, and 3,463 have been denied or marked as suspected or self-reported identity theft.
The PUA system has been a target nationwide for identity theft and fraud, complicating the already complex situation that’s arisen since the program was put in place as part of the CARES Act. The program was written and enacted quickly, and changes — like the ones that threw a wrench in many Montanans’ ability to collect payments — must come from the federal government.
The PUA program, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, helped people like Amy Perry get her son set up for college.
Perry, a single mother living in Missoula, is immunocompromised and has a mental illness that can make regular work tough, and for years she struggled to stay in a job. That was until a 2016 suicide attempt, when she said something changed.
“I had to create my own band-aid situation,” she said. “I got certified in reiki and started doing the natural healing fairs … that was the beginning of what I felt was a great way to help people deal with their pain, and not end up suicidal.”
Between tips from reiki massages and occasional waitressing shifts, Perry got by well enough to support herself and her son.
But then COVID-19 shut down those healing fairs, and Perry was too afraid for her own health to do waitressing jobs, so she applied for regular unemployment. She was denied regular unemployment because of how much money she made. She said someone at the state labor department suggested she apply for PUA, which she did.
Perry received her last PUA payment the first week of August. About a month later, she got a letter that said she hadn’t proved that she met the criteria, which made her already-received payments fraudulent. The letter said she needed to pay back $13,880.
Perry applied for an appeal after getting that letter. She sent in documentation of her autoimmune diagnosis, medication that she’s on to treat lung problems, client testimonies, but said she’s now waiting for a letter from her doctor stating that she’s unable to work.
“It’s not like I don’t want to work. Until we know more about this COVID thing, I’m scared to death,” she said. “I don’t have what everybody else has to fight it.”
In the interim, she has been looking for jobs that she could do safely and has applied for disability payments, even though she didn’t want to, in the hopes that payments could bring some form of stability. Her son is working two jobs to help support them while attending classes, she said.
“It’s kind of just humiliating, because they treat us like, ‘You tried to scam us’,” Perry said. “It proves no matter what I did to bridge that gap, to create stability in my home, I don’t matter.”
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